clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Sports Saturday

Peyton’s place is in front of a camera

Manning shines in new ESPN+ show, which debuts Sunday and will air weekly until the Super Bowl.

Peyton Manning joins Super Fans Robert Smigel (left) and George Wendt for a meal amid the columns of Soldier Field.
Peyton Manning joins Super Fans Robert Smigel (left) and George Wendt for a meal amid the columns of Soldier Field.
Rick Telander/Sun-Times

Peyton Manning visited our town recently and found things to his liking.

It was a whirlwind visit, but he spent time with, in roughly this order: Virginia McCaskey, Joe Maddon, Kris Bryant, Mike Ditka, Robert Smigel, George Wendt, assorted television crew members who dried him off after he was “baptized’’ in a trough of pseudo-Italian beef juice and a number of regular folks on the sidewalks who just wanted to chat.

Manning, of course, is the recently retired NFL quarterback who, by some measurements, is the greatest QB ever to play the game. He had come to Chicago to do work for his new show, “Peyton’s Places,” which will debut Sunday on ESPN+. More on that as we move ahead.

Chicago has special meaning to Manning beyond this TV gig, -something that local sports fans can appreciate. As you’ll recall, Manning directed the Colts’ comeback win over the Bears in Super Bowl XLI in Miami on Feb. 4, 2007. The score was 29-17, and the loss is as close as the Bears have come to an NFL championship since they won Super Bowl XX on Jan. 26, 1986.

It rained that night in Miami, steadily and evenly, not like a -cloudburst, but more like a lawn sprinkler set on medium. It was the first and only time rain fell in any appreciable amount during a Super Bowl, dumping a total of 0.92 inches on the field. This was important because Manning had prepared as best he could for the slop, and, clearly, Bears quarterback Rex Grossman had not.

“I’m thinking, ‘It never rains at the Super Bowl,” Manning says during a filming break, recalling that week. “But I saw the forecast.”

And that brought up something he’d learned at the University of Tennessee.

“Back then, Dave Cutcliffe [the Volunteers’ quarterbacks coach] said, about the third or fourth week in camp, ‘We’re doing the “Wet Ball Snap Drill,” boys!’ Equipment guys squirted water on the balls, and the centers snapped them to the quarterbacks. You just never know when you’ll play in the rain.

“I took the drill with me to Indianapolis, and we’d practice it every now and then. So we get down to Miami, and I did it again on that Saturday.”

Did it help?

“I think the Bears had two fumbled snaps between [center Olin] Kreutz and Grossman. [True.] Cutcliffe always said, ‘One fumbled snap is one too many.’ Interceptions, those are going to happen. But you fumble a handoff exchange or a snap? Inexcusable.”

Manning had his share of miscues in the muck that night, and it likely wasn’t the wet-ball drill that made the difference in the game. But it did matter that Colts coach Tony Dungy knew the Bears’ cover-2 defense inside and out from his years studying all NFL defenses.

“I felt like I really knew that defense so well. I saw it every day in practice,” Manning says. “Dungy took me through it, like the origins of it, like ‘This is why the Mike linebacker’s going deep, this is the reason.’ It’s a defense that tests your patience, so you have to be smart.”

He had to be really smart because Bears return man Devin Hester had scored on the opening kickoff, and it was 7-0 Bears with 14 seconds gone.

Recalling this, Manning becomes amused, like the cheerful, inquisitive, mischievous character he plays in all those entertaining TV ads, such as when he and brother Eli, the Giants quarterback, bicker behind father Archie’s back, like two devious second-graders.

“All week long in team meetings, we’ve said we’re not going to kick it to him — all week — we’re not going to do it,” he says. “And then we do. I don’t know what happened.’’

He literally didn’t. As Hester took off on his 92-yard bolt, Manning’s focus was elsewhere.

“I always wanted to play in a Super Bowl, and it always fascinated me that on the opening kickoff all the lights would go on and off, you know, the fans with their lights. So I’m sitting on the bench next to Reggie Wayne, and I said to myself, ‘I’m going to take a moment to watch this.’ So I’m looking behind me at all these lights, even in the rain you can see it all, and then I’m thinking: ‘Hmm, I didn’t hear a whistle.’ ”

Shortly after, he caught the Bears making a mistake in deep coverage and threw a 53-yard touchdown pass to Wayne. In retrospect, it probably wouldn’t have been right for an average quarterback like Grossman to beat a future Hall of Famer like Manning in a game of this magnitude. Manning threw for 71,940 yards and 539 touchdowns in his 17-year career, the second-most and most ever. He was named to 14 Pro Bowls, voted first-team All Pro seven times and is the only starting quarterback to win the Super Bowl with two franchises. Grossman has done none of those things.

Manning’s the guy who started all the walking around behind center, going up and down the line, yelling to his teammates, pointing out linebackers, free safeties, all kinds of stuff, playing pre-snap quarterback like some kind of a crazy auctioneer.

He’s 43 now, out of the game since 2015, and his legacy is that of the cerebral, teammate-friendly, humble ex-superstar who likely could do a whole slew of things if he put his mind to it. Coach? Analyst? Football executive? Businessman? Easy.

But for now, he says he likes being semi-retired, doing this show thing with NFL Films on a one-year contract, making some funny commercials, doing some speeches, keeping his hand in the game he loves but having free time.

“For the first time, I’m in control of my own schedule, after over a quarter of a century,” he says. “Last night my son had a baseball game, and I could be there.”

Yet, “Peyton’s Places” needs it’s star, and NFL Films and ESPN have a lot of folks seriously trying to make this a big success. During the one-day Chicago shooting, there are 70 people — from technicians to script-writers to camera crews — following Manning to his various locations. By the end, as many as 140 people will have worked on the episodes.

The show is a celebration of the history of the NFL in its 100th year, with Manning as the guide. He crisscrosses the U.S. on a series of shoots, checking out the people and places that helped build America’s favorite sport.

There’s a lot of deadpan humor involved, and, if the brief online trailer is any indication, the show will be informative but also loaded with Manning’s particular form of innocent, endearing slapstick.

“I want to know how stickum works!” he hollers in one episode before getting slathered with the stuff and catching a ball shot from a Jugs machine with one hand.

He heaves a football off a 20-story building in New York — an incredible, gravity-propelled rocket that some player in helmet and uniform tries to catch far below — and asks rhetorically, “If I complete it, is it worth me falling off the building?”

Then he’s asking Jim Brown in Los Angeles, “Was running out of bounds ever an option?”

Brown, still fearsome at 83, scoffs at the ignorance of the question as old footage shows him knocking players out of his way to stay inbounds: “No, no, no.”

He sees Joe Montana at a football museum and asks with a sincere and hopeful smile, “Does everybody who buys a museum ticket get to meet Joe Montana?’’

“No, of course not!” snaps Montana. “I’m only here on Wednesdays.’’

He reads a pre-draft scouting report to talent evaluator Mel Kiper Jr. about Kiper himself: “Weak, can’t tackle but handles a blow dryer better than anyone in the business.’’ It’s his serious look to Kiper that says, “Is that accurate?” that sells the bit.

He tells Joe Namath it’s cold outside, and Namath drapes him in his old, legendary and massive fur coat.

He arrives to coach some adolescent kids at a field while, for unexplained reasons, he’s dressed as Elvis Presley, replete with jumpsuit and wig.

“Quit looking at my chest hair!’’ he hollers. “Look at the play.’’

Neil Zender, a Notre Dame grad, football enthusiast and the coordinating producer at NFL Films who’s directing the show — which will run weekly until the Super Bowl — says that there might not be anybody else who can host these episodes the way Manning does.

“He loves people,” Zender says. “He connects with them, and he is so likeable. He has his dry humor, and his timing is great.”

Most of us know this from watching Manning do his Nationwide Insurance ads with country singer Brad Paisley, in which he, the clueless Manning, thinks he’s a vital part of “the band.” Then there’s the one for Mastercard in which he’s cheering on a deli worker by chanting, “Cut that meat! Cut that meat!”

“We have writers,” Zender says. “But the best jokes are him reacting to things.”

That becomes obvious when he’s on the grass at Wrigley Field before a Cubs game, being filmed from all different angles while talking casually with manager Maddon and player Bryant.

“Why didn’t they figure out, ‘Omaha!’ ” asks Maddon, referring to the audible Manning called often in a playoff game.

“Well, they play defense,” Manning says. Then he adds slyly, “I did get a lot of steaks out of that.”

Later, he sits with Smigel and Wendt in a Soldier Field concourse, decked out like them in Super Fan garb, wearing a mustache and shades, seated in front of a grotesque pile of meat, cheese, nachos, pickles, beer.

He nods and eats and stays deadpan serious as they discuss Bears lore.

“If der are aliens, de’re gonna land at Soldier Field,” Wendt says. “De’r gonna wanna see our leader: Mike Ditka.”

“Mike Ditka,” Manning repeats with the group.

To become a born-again Bears fan, Manning submits to a face-plant in the tub of brown tea water disguised as “Eye-talian” beef juice, while pastors Wendt and Smigel preside.

“Baby Peyton, my son,” Wendt says, “are you ready to be baptized into Bears Super Fan-dom?’’

“I’m only tipsy, so not really,” Manning replies.

No matter, Smigel and Wendt dunk his head in the liquid. Cut. Excellent!

Earlier, Manning had been with the real Ditka aboard a Shoreline Sightseeing boat that slowly worked its way up the Chicago River. Manning stood with Ditka near the bow, asking him about his life and career as the boat went under one bridge after another, past landmarks, tourists, kayakers, people sunbathing on the steps leading down to the river walk, other people hustling about their business on the streets above.

“I was born in Pennsylvania,” Da Coach says, responding to one question. “But Chicago’s my home.”

Manning asks about George Halas, Ditka’s coach and boss.

“My first contract I made $12,000 and got $6,000 for being Rookie of the Year. We sat at his kitchen table the next year, and he offered me $18,000. True story.”

He’s happier about his relationship with then-Bears quarterback Bill Wade. It was Wade who threw the ball to Ditka so much that a position known mostly as a blocking receiver’s spot abruptly became a major pass-receiving weapon.

“He fell in love with me. A tight end! A wonderful man.”

Manning asks about Dick Butkus.

“Meanest man I’ve ever met.”

The boat moves along, and when it pauses for a spell at a spot near a crowded waterfront restaurant-bar, people begin to notice who is aboard. Some holler out, “Ditka!” Others shout, “Omaha!” or sing the Nationwide jingle.

“Hi!” Ditka shouts to a group of onlookers. “You know Archie Manning’s son Peyton?”

Later, Manning points out the place on the river where in 1915 the SS Eastland capsized, killing 844 people.

“More people died than on the Titanic,” Manning tells Ditka somberly, adding that, incredibly, 20-year-old George Halas was supposed to be on the boat that was going across Lake Michigan for a company picnic. But he arrived late, and the boat had already tipped over.

“Had he been on that boat,” Manning says, “no NFL, no Chicago Bears.”

Ditka ponders this.

“George Halas was not gong to die in a boat accident,” Ditka states flatly.

Manning’s stay in Chicago was quick. In the weeks to come, he would head off to other football havens, ending his journey of discovery and good cheer in Canton, Ohio, in August at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Thirty episodes total.

If they’re like the trailer, they should be a hoot.

Manning, as ever, is modest. He already has said a couple times that he’s not nuts about the self-serving title.

“Yeah, everybody likes the trailer,” he admits. “Everybody says it’s really good. But the trailer for ‘Police Academy 5’ was also good, and the movie sucked.”

Sure, but that movie never threw 55 touchdown passes in one season. Your host, Peyton Manning, most assuredly did.